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We can only pay attention to one thing at a time. For years, you have heard that we all need to multitask and you may have convinced yourself that you can do it it pretty well.

It’s not so bad to listen to music while you work – a distraction, but minimal. But add in checking your email and messages, watching a video on Facebook and all suffer.

The push to multitask is being reversed. We all know now that anything else you do while driving hurts your focus on driving and can be deadly. Listening to the radio, singing along or talking to a passenger may be tolerable distractions, but texting, looking at a screen for your audio settings, looking at the sites as they are passing, reading signs, studying the GPS map, drinking or eating, and fumbling in your pocket or pocketbook for your ringing phone are all very dangerous.

More and more research shows this to be true: We all like to think that we can multi-task and do all the tasks well, but we can’t. And when it comes to paying attention, who is better, men or women? Turns out, neither.

Here is a simple attention test. Watch this short video of two basketball teams, one wearing black and the other in white, passing basketballs between them and count the number of passes made by the white team.

Recent neuroscience research tells us that rather than doing tasks simultaneously well, what we might be good at is just being able to switch tasks quickly. But that stop/start process in the brain wastes time and degrades our focus on both tasks.

When you watched the video, how may passes did you see? Actually, the researchers didn’t care much about that part of this experiment known as the “gorilla test.” Psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons created the video to see how many people saw a woman wearing a gorilla suit walk onto the scene, thump her chest several times and then walk off. She is there in the middle of the video for about 9 seconds but only 50% of viewers spot the gorilla.

Why? Because when you are told to concentrate on one thing, your mind tends not to see other things. You were counting passes from one team and paid less attention to other things.

The video is not proof of our inability to multitask, but the psychologists call this effect “inattentional blindness.”

Daniel Simons says:
“Indeed, most of us are unaware of the limits of our attention—and therein lies the real danger. For instance, we may talk on the phone and drive because we are mistakenly convinced that we would notice a sudden event, such as a car stopping short in front of us.
Inattentional blindness does have an upside. Our ability to ignore distractions around us allows us to retain our focus. Just don’t expect your partner to be charitably disposed when your focus on the television renders her or him invisible.”

This shift in our attitudes toward multitasking probably tracks with an increased interest in many forms of mindfulness training, and an increase in the number of people identified as having attention deficit disorders. We know our attention is lousy. We are easily distracted. And most of us want to do something about the problem.

 

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Maybe it is because I taught in a public school for many years, but I still find myself feeling really tired and ready for a nap around 3 pm. What is going on with my body clock?

Sleepiness generally hits all of us 7-9 hours after we wake up from a night’s sleep. That’s not very convenient for anyone who works a normal day. If you wake up at 7 am, it will hit you somewhere from 2-4 pm.

Generally, we fight off the urge to sleep, but our alertness drops. Now that i am in unretired mode, I don’t fight off the feeling much. I take a nap, but for most of you that is not an option.

The fatigue can also be attributed to adenosine, a chemical that accumulates during the day and causes sleepiness. But don’t go out trying to find some adenosine to help you sleep at night. It is used for treating certain types of irregular heartbeat and during a stress test of the heart.

When this sleepiness hits, your internal body temperature also drops starts dipping, I do like a blanket for nap time and a drop in body temperature signals your brain to conserve energy and prepare for sleep.

So what can you do when a nap is not an option? Many people chug down some caffeine or crave a sugary snack. These are not very healthy relief. I love my morning coffee kick, but I can’t do caffeine in the afternoon without wrecking my sleep that night. My wife can have a strong cup of caffeine before she goes to sleep.

What are alternatives?

Dehydration can cause sleepiness, so a glass or two of water can also help. I try to log 64 ounces every day on my Fitbit app.

Get outside and get some sunlight. Twenty minutes of sunlight (through clouds counts too) sends a signal to that brain clock to turn on some energy to wake up and be more alert.

I love to walk and there is evidence that even a 10-minute walk that is brisk can energize you again. You can do it inside, but a walk outdoors adds that sunlight boost.

Want to add more to that walk? Make it social. Some research shows that talking with someone and social interaction can help give your mind a break and gets you to focus outside yourself. Get a walk buddy. Have a walking meeting. Even a phone call (not a text!) might help.

Lots of websites, like the Fitbit blog, will tell you that nap time isn’t just for pre-schoolers. Tell your boss that data shows that a brief, 20-minute nap can be enough to boost mental and physical performance.

“Words are like flies: you notice them when they’re buzzing; when they’re not, it’s as if they don’t exist at all, ” says in The New Yorker. She came upon a billboard with a single word – parbunkells – in black Apple Garamond typeface on a white background. An advertisement for a new product?

Some investigating led her to Julia Weist, an artist.  She came across the word (which means two ropes bound together with nooses [loops] on all four ends and merged in the middle) and thought it was “a nice metaphor for things coming together.” It is a real word with hundreds of year of usage. Just not on the Internet.

She had been looking for a word that did not appear in the results of a search engine. Not an easy task, though Weist also has a degree in library science.  I had my students one semester try to find a relevant course topic that was not in Wikipedia. Also a tough assignment.

Next, Weist went beyond normal curiosity. She decided to put the word somewhere easily visible in public, just to see what would happen. Weist got billboard space via 14X48, a group that fills empty billboards with work by young artists. It would stay up until someone placed a paid ad in that spot

When her billboard version appeared (June 12) in Queens, New York, if you did a web search on “parbunkells” you would only find a website she created. That didn’t last long.

Her experiment in attention and reach began to appear all over the web on social media sites. Someone created a Twitter handle for the word. Someone bought the domain name parbunkells.org and then offered it on eBay with a starting bid of $8000 and “Buy It Now” price of $20,000.

I did a Google search on the word today and came up with about 4200 search results for “parbunkells.” Given time, this post will be included in those results.

The experiment turned out to be an interesting way to study viewership and the way social media spreads memes. There is something to be studied in the eventual engagement with the word that occurred and also the engagement with Weist that emerged.  A “microcosm of the Web’s life cycle.”

attentionAs a teacher, I found it rather depressing to read that the typical student’s attention span is about 10 to 15 minutes long. You often hear that all of us are becoming less and less attentive.

Research is often done on students and you would have to assume that things like motivation, emotion, interest in a topic and the time of day would all influence attention, but the general belief persists that students especially have “short attention spans.”

Some research I was reading suggests other things. One finding was that lapses of attention were short – one minute or less – and that short breaks in attention are more common than longer breaks.

The researchers were studying students during a university lecture – not the most exciting of situations. They found that the first lapse occurred just 30 seconds into a lecture segment, next at 4.5 to 5.5 minutes into the lecture, then at 7 to 9 minutes and at 9 to 10 minutes.

They describe this as a “waxing-and-waning” pattern continued throughout the lecture, with attention lapses occurring more frequently as the lecture progressed.

We love to blame technology for attention “deficits” but there are also arguments on the other side that as change the ways we process information, we need to change the ways we present information.

Many teachers have discovered that it is more effective to “break-up” lectures with periods of active learning. It is a technique that probably works outside of classrooms and probably one that we self-employ in our own work habits.

 

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